Aircraft End-of-Life Practices

Decommissioning and recycling aircraft involves a variety of disciplines and involves issues connected to the environment, operations, safety, law, and the economy. As a result, it is crucial that all parties with a stake in the aviation industry work together to create and execute best practices in this area. A new sector that is quickly gaining prominence is the business of disassembling, dismantling, and recycling aircraft.

Over the past few decades, there has been a steady rise in the number of aircraft retirements. Up to roughly 900 aircraft were retired annually during the world economic downturn that began in 2008. Currently, there are roughly 600 airplanes produced per year, however, this number can change depending on the state of the economy. As a growing portion of the fleet reaches retirement age, the average retirement rate is anticipated to rise further. Over 20% of the more than 27,000 commercial aircraft now in use throughout the world are older than 20 years and will likely be scrapped in the upcoming ten years. Over the next 20 years, more than 20,000 commercial aircraft are anticipated to be retired.

The total end-of-life process for an airplane is broken down into two distinct phases. The first phase, which covers the procedures up to the removal of parts for reuse in other aircraft, falls under the aviation domain and is governed by the relevant laws. In the second phase, the retired aircraft has lost its certification, which entails final dismantling and recycling, and the aviation regulations are no longer relevant.

A well-organized end-of-life process for airplanes is carried out in an orderly manner. An airplane will begin the disassembly process once the owner has decided to disassemble and dismantle it, with the aim of removing the valuable components. Depending on their technical state, the removed components will either be returned to the aviation market immediately or may require inspection, repair, or overhaul by a certified repair facility before being used again. Competent and authorized/certified players in the aerospace industry carry out these tasks.

Once an airplane has irreversibly lost its ability to fly, it is no longer regarded as an item that the State of Registry is responsible for and may even be viewed as waste. This typically happens after the last owner of the aircraft has sold the aircraft to a company that dismantles it and after all of the pieces intended for reuse have been removed. After that, it becomes commercial waste. 

Some aircraft components can be reused for non-aerospace purposes during the disassembly process, while the remaining components will be deemed waste and removed and sent for additional processing. The non-recyclable wastes will be prepared for disposal while the recyclable wastes will be treated and prepared in batches for recycling.

In general, the way that decommissioned aircraft are presently being treated is a good example of environmentally conscious behavior. Currently, recycled or reusable materials make up 85% to 90% of the weight of retired airplanes, demonstrating the fact that both reusable components and recovered materials have high residual values. All disassembled airplanes are thought to return between 40% and 50% of their weight to the pipeline that distributes parts. 

The majority of the leftover unusable material is recycled and added back to the supply chain as raw materials, but it takes a lot of manual labor to separate out different structural components such as different aluminum alloys, titanium, and stainless steel. In rare instances, airplane parts or even entire aircraft have been recycled for unusual uses, ranging from hotels inside of aircraft fuselages to furniture and art. Less than 10% of material is typically processed as waste. Today, the majority of it is made of carbon fiber, which is increasingly popular due to its low weight and associated reduction in fuel consumption.

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